The Role of 3D Printing in Assistive Tech

graphical printer in 3d

The possibilities in 3D-printed assistive technology are growing, mostly due to a few think tanks, effective nonprofits, individuals with a cause and their successful crowdsourcing initiatives; and the fact that the world population is aging rapidly. A lot of this tech benefits people with limited motor function, but also the visually and hearing-impaired, as well as the elderly.

According to one Stanford study, “Exploring Markets for Assistive Technologies for the Elderly,” the world population “will age dramatically by 2050 — a problem especially for Japan, Europe and the U.S. Large elderly populations will place a growing strain on human caregivers as well as health and social systems.”

What’s so great about 3D-printed assistive devices?

The cost and the fact that they’re customizable, for starters. As Clare Scott of 3DPrint.com points out, it’s usually the high-tech “life-changing” devices that make the headlines, but it’s “often the simplest inventions that can make the biggest difference in individual lives.”

“There’s no risk of large biomedical corporations being put out of business anytime soon,” she writes, “the average hobbyist isn’t going to start churning out titanium implants or organ tissue in his or her living room.”

Scott cites wheelchair controls, like joysticks, and other customizable devices as an excellent example of “how 3D printing can easily and cheaply circumvent challenges.” They are among those most commonly requested assistive tech devices, she notes.

Scott J. Grunewald, also of 3DPrint.com, points out that it costs the same to manufacture one product as hundreds of them. He writes:

“That means companies that develop assistive devices don’t have to use silly infomercials to sell enough assistive devices to be profitable, the assistive devices can be customized and then 3D printed individually for specific needs. There are some great designers who have taken advantage of the potential of 3D printing and created some amazing gadgets that may look silly to you and I, but may be the difference between a disabled person being independent or not.

So next time, before you make that Slap Chop joke, remember that not everyone has the same luxury of using a tool like a knife that you probably take for granted.”

Examples of everyday 3D-printed assistive tech

The options for making customized, low-tech products for everyday use that are not expensive and can be delivered quickly (if not immediately, if they’re DYI) are endless when it comes to 3D printing. They include everything from more high-end prosthetic ears and hands to wheelchair ramps to fork holders and straw grips.

Other examples can include things like these (culled from the 3DPrint.com roundups):

  • Video game controller thumbstick extender
  • Utensil holder
  • Cup holders (for house use and for the wheelchair)
  • Stylus cuff for touchscreen devices
  • Portable curb ramp
  • Large zipper pulls
  • Ring pull tab can opener
  • Medication bottle opener
  • Remote control enlarger

A PDF study/overview published last year by AbleData (the agency funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education), lists someexamples of assistive devices that can benefit from 3D printing technology:

“While many daily living aids are available for sale, the ability to customize the aid for a particular need can result in a more functional product. For example, wheelchair users can find mounting devices designed for tablets and phones that are customizable. For those with grasping difficulties, there are instructions for printing many variations of devices such as adjustable bottle cap openers, microwave door openers, and pen cap openers.

3D printing can also make replacement parts for assistive devices or small pieces that may not be available for individual sale. For instance, a person who uses a walker can print out a single hinge as a replacement part.”

 The potential role of 3D printing in assistive tech

As 3D printers become less expensive and more advanced, as well as more portable, the technology is becoming accessible to more people. There are also more instructions and product designs shared online, making the DYI aspect possible.

Of course, as with any relatively new technology, 3D printing capability isn’t without its hurdles. John Smith of Business2Business Community expresses his frustration with the challenges 3D printing is facing when it comes to its potential to help people with disabilities.

He writes:

“I know profit mongers will have a hard time hijacking 3D printing as ordinary people and even people with disabilities can benefit from it. But even then, I feel a bit disappointed when I see many 3D pundits are sneering at the growth of assistive technologies.

They prefer to focus on profit-driven segments such as toy manufacturing and real estate architectural rendering. While I don’t have any problem with that, I expect them to be more considerate to assistive technology because 3D printing can help to overcome the challenges that this industry vertical is facing currently.”

Smith quotes Denise Stephens, the co-founder of a nonprofit Enabled by Design that develops assistive tech using 3D printing. Stephens has multiple sclerosis, which, according to Smith, she used as her motivation to take on the initiative. Speaking about the role of 3D printing, Stephens said:

“3-D printing has a huge potential to disrupt — it means people with disabilities will have the power to revolutionize the products they use and to make them highly personalized.”

Image by kjpargeter/123RF Stock Photo.

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